ISU anthropology professor studying the Fighting Sioux mascot controversy

AMES, Iowa -- The legal fight over the use of the Fighting Sioux mascot (right) at the University of North Dakota (UND) took the controversy over the use of Indian-related sports names to a new level. It ultimately led to state legislators and UND officials announcing plans Friday to change the school's nickname following a meeting with NCAA officials.

Christina Gish Hill -- an assistant professor of anthropology and faculty member in American Indian studies at Iowa State University -- has been so intrigued by the Fighting Sioux controversy at UND that she plans to write a future journal article about it. The case escalated to include actions taken by UND, the North Dakota state legislature, the NCAA, and American Indian students at UND.

The university had begun steps to retire the Fighting Sioux mascot after being urged to do so by the NCAA. But then the North Dakota legislature passed a law earlier this year requiring UND to keep the mascot, even though the NCAA had placed UND on a list of schools with American Indian nicknames deemed "hostile and abusive" and planned to impose sanctions against the university for continuing to use it.

UND to retire mascot

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple led a delegation of state lawmakers and university officials for the Friday meeting at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. After the NCAA would not change the settlement agreement that was set to go into effect today, Aug. 15, Dalrymple said he would introduce a Nov. 7 bill transferring authority of the nickname and logo back to the school, which will begin the process of retiring it.

That decision may have also been influenced by news that six American Indian students at UND filed a federal lawsuit over the school's use of the nickname last Thursday. The complaint alleged that a new law requiring the school to keep the nickname violated the state constitution and reversed a court-ordered settlement between UND and the NCAA.

While controversy over the use of Indian nicknames and mascots is not new, Hill can't recall another case that reached this legal extreme.

"I have not heard of another state legislature getting involved in this way," she said. "Obviously the University of Illinois and the Fighting Illini was hugely controversial and students and faculty and particularly alumni got involved. Students and faculty are typically fraught about these issues because they're living with the controversy, but it tends to be alumni that really hang on to the mascot. They have a sort of nostalgic and positive connection to those mascots.

"And so the debate over the Fighting Illini was a huge struggle for years and years and years. And as far as I know, the legislature didn't really get involved in that. They certainly didn't pass a law," said Hill, who also studies the Northern Cheyenne people in Montana for her research on the expression of sovereignty in American Indian communities.

Little support from Sioux tribes

In order to continue using the Fighting Sioux mascot, the NCAA had required UND to get approval from both Sioux tribes residing in North Dakota -- Spirit Lake and Standing Rock. The Spirit Lake tribe gave its approval, but Standing Rock rejected it.

Hill also found Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota -- the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara -- and the Siseston-Wahpeton Sioux, whose reservation is mostly in South Dakota but also overlaps into North Dakota, also didn't support the mascot. And five other Sioux groups in South Dakota -- Oglala, Rosebud, Yankton, Crow Creek, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes -- all wrote letters saying that they wanted the Fighting Sioux mascot to be retired.

Hill says that the debate over the use of Indian mascots isn't the top concern among Native Americans she's interacted with, including the Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes. When the mascot topic comes up, the response has been mixed.

"There are definitely different responses, and I think part of it might be a little generational," she said. "The older folks have a tendency to say, 'Fighting Illini, or Indians, or Braves, or Savages, these are problematic across the board.' Nobody I know likes the Redskins. People sort of bristle at those names.

"The Fighting Sioux and the Seminoles in Florida -- I think some Native people support those mascots because they do see a little bit of themselves in them," Hill continued. "It may be the attitude of, 'Yeah, it's a stereotype, but it's a positive stereotype.' And one thing that some people at Spirit Lake specifically said was that most Americans don't know about Spirit Lake and Standing Rock, but they know the Fighting Sioux. And so for some, there's a sense that this makes them recognizable rather than invisible."

Thanks to the visibility and legal significance in the UND case, the Sioux name has been far from invisible of late. And Hill suspects that other sports teams with Indian mascots or nicknames -- including professional sports franchises -- were watching it quite closely for the legal precedent it's been setting.